Two more county governing boards in the Mid-Atlantic are under fire for giving preference to Christian prayers in opening official meetings.
The two counties — one in Maryland, the other in North Carolina — join a growing number of others in the region whose official prayer practices have been challenged, and who in some cases have responded with spirited, though unsuccessful, legal defenses.
Two residents of Carroll County, Md., filed suit May 1 in U.S. District Court, saying the commissioners’ sectarian prayers violate the First Amendment. During 2011 and 2011, the board of commissioners opened its meetings on at least 54 separate occasions with prayers referring to “Jesus,” “Savior” and the Lord’s Prayer, according to the lawsuit.
None of the prayers referred to “non-Christian deities or used non-Christian language,” the lawsuit says.
Doug Howard, president of the five-member board, told the Baltimore Sun the prayers — which rotate among commissioners at each meeting — pass constitutional muster.
“It is simply that commissioner’s individual thoughts,” Howard told the Sun. “I am totally comfortable with what we are doing.”
In Union County, N.C., the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation sent the board of commissioners a second letter May 3 calling its sectarian prayers unconstitutional, according to the Charlotte Observer.
An initial letter in February received no response from the board, the foundation said.
“This stays on our radar,” Patrick Elliott, staff attorney for the foundation, told the Observer. “If they do not change [in the coming months] we are considering filing a lawsuit.”
The two counties have similar demographics — historically rural but increasingly suburban. Carroll County is northwest of Baltimore, Union County southeast of Charlotte.
It’s not the first time Carroll County commissioners have been criticized for alleged First Amendment violations. Last year the Sun reported that the American Humanist Association warned the board its sectarian prayers were unconstitutional.
In May 2012, some watchdog groups were concerned when one Carroll County commissioner emailed an invitation to about 850 government employees to attend a monthly prayer session, to be led by her in the basement of the county office building. And three months earlier the board ran into opposition when it asked employees to attend a seminar on the Maryland Constitution, led by a conservative Christian minister.
Since 2011, sectarian prayers by government bodies in at least four North Carolina counties and one in Virginia have been challenged. In two — Forsyth County, N.C., and Pittsylvania County, Va. — courts ruled that, while official opening prayers are permissible, the First Amendment requires that they be non-sectarian.
The suburbanization — and accompanying diversity and shifts in cultural norms — of counties like Carroll and Union may partly explain the increased challenges to official sectarian prayers. Union County board chair Jerry Simpson told the Observer that spirituality is part of the lives of a huge majority of county residents and they appreciate that commissioners make prayer a part of their meetings.
Union commissioner Jonathan Thomas told the Observer he was shocked the county had to deal with criticism over the invocations in a community where “most people on a Sunday morning are in some type of Christian setting.”
Last month, two legislators introduced a resolution in the North Carolina House of Representative asserting the state isn’t prohibited from establishing an official religion. The measure was effectively killed April 4 when Speaker Thom Tillis said it would not come up for a vote.
Robert Dilday ([email protected]) is managing editor of the Religious Herald.